Globalizing Time, Globalizing Capital: A Conversation with Vanessa Ogle

It’s a familiar routine for scholars of global history. Having squeezed in a visit to an archive during a spring break or stretch of summer vacation, you get off the airplane in a foreign land, stretch your legs, and feel, in spite of the local caffeine injection, tired. You set your watch, several hours ahead if coming from the United States and several hours back if coming to Europe and try to make the best of the first day on foreign soil.

Soon, however, jet lag sets in. You either fall asleep in your dinner or wake up hours before the local bakers do. Exhausted, you read tips on how to beat the exhaustion, where you learn that the body needs an equivalent number of days to time zones crossed to beat off the exhaustion. The scholar coming from California to Moscow, for example, has eleven days of misery to endure before he or she is fully up to date with local time. You remain grateful for the chance to pursue your research, but, counting the time zones, groan at the routine.

It’s a familiar routine for many, indeed, but not as old as one might think. Until the late 19th century, as University of Pennsylvania professor and global historian Vanessa Ogle shows in her work, efforts towards a global standardization of time ranged from negligible to chaotic. The standardization of time that we have today, and the divisions that we use–Central European Time from Madrid to Montenegro, Greenwich Mean Time, and scientifically controlled Coordinated Universal Time to keep time zones themselves punctual–are all relatively recent inventions.

Unpacking this story, and seeing how contentious the seemingly most universal thing in the world–time–could be are great themes for global history. That’s why the Global History Forum was excited to sit down to interview Ogle, who is close to publishing her findings on the history of time standardization and well underway on a second project on the global history of “archipelago capitalism.” Speaking over coffee, we discussed her journey to global history, her first project, and her current work.

Ogle’s journey began in Germany, where she was born and where she attended school and university. There, she noted, history at the level of primary schools and the Gymnasium (the German equivalent of American high school), was often explicitly national in focus. True, secondary school pedagogy saw greater attention devoted to the history of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the complicity of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era German Army, in mass killing as a state policy. But all of these events still found their framing through the history of a German state. That trend reflected a perhaps particularly German scholarly framing. Even at the university level, scholars studied areas outside Europe not as part of the general history curriculum but rather in area studies departments separate from the discipline of history. Little wonder that other European countries’ national histories, much less those of, say, the Middle East, entered but little into secondary school curricula.

Yet once Ogle reached the Free University of Berlin,  where she completed her undergraduate and Master’s work, the horizons expanded. Earlier coursework in French opened the door for Ogle to pursue a Master’s thesis on French colonial exhibitions. Having completed this work, however, Ogle still yearned for more regional grounding. She began to study Arabic and dabbled in Persian, admittedly “without a goal,” but with a sense that she wanted to study European history through its colonial world and with regional languages. The Levant, roughly today’s Lebanon and Syria, stood out in particular. Turned into a French Mandate by the League of Nations, the area was a “little laboratory” of peripheries stacked one upon the other. The area had been a periphery of the Ottoman Empire before the Treaty of Sèvres assigned it to Paris, but even then, the area occupied the French colonial mind less than, say, Algeria, Morocco, or West Africa.

Spurred by the desire to learn more, Ogle attended Harvard for graduate school, where she worked with global historians Sven Beckert and Charles S. Maier. Having learned to operate independently in the sometimes-anonymous world of German universities, Ogle thrived in the coursework-driven approach of the first years of an American doctoral program. She took a year-long course on the history of capitalism with Beckert and courses in Middle Eastern history, all the while enhancing her knowledge of Arabic.

Questions about a drive towards uniformity perhaps inherent in capitalism began to occupy her. How, she wondered, at a time when economic and financial globalization were bringing places like Beirut and Bombay into closer and more intensive contact with metropoles in Paris and London, did Europeans and non-Europeans think about the “objective” differences of time across the planet? These questions led Ogle to begin the project that became her dissertation, “Clocks, Calendars, and Conversion Charts: Reorganizing Time During the First Wave of Globalization.” The book manuscript resulting from the PhD is set to appear shortly with Harvard University Press under the title of Contesting Time: The Global Struggle For Uniformity and Its Unintended Consequences, 1870s-1950s; in the meantime, however, Ogle has published a synthesis of some of her results in an article for the American Historical Review, published in December 2013.

In her work, Ogle looks at several groups that conceived of, and reacted to, attempts at time unification in different ways. The initiators of the project were Europeans and Americans–the leading members of the emerging global economy of the first wave of globalization–who quickly realized the need for standardization as “the necessary lubricant for the uninterrupted flow of people, goods, and ideas.” Without standardizing measurement and time itself, international commerce would be impossible. Some of the institutions that resulted from this moment stick with us today, like the meter as a unit of length measurement or the International Telecommunication Union (originally the International Telegraph Union). Some projects faltered, like the attempt to unify calendars globally: Julian calendar stalwart Russia resisted, and even today Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Iran, and Afghanistan use their own calendars for official time.

Yet perhaps most all-encompassing was the drive to standardize time itself. Scientists and diplomats pioneered the use of a global system of time zones in 1884, and “out of the standard time movement grew attempts to end the waste of daylight by introducing so-called daylight saving or summer time.” Time in Europe was constantly politicized, redefined, and renamed. The concept of Adriazeit (Adriatic Time) enjoyed a boom in the late 19th century, part of a transnational project to imagine German-speaking Europe plus northern Italy as part of a shared universe. The same goes for the concept of “Mitteleuropäische Zeit,” a term that literally translates as “Middle European Time” but contains registers of Friedrich Naumann’s term Mitteleuropa–an idea of a not always German-speaking but often German-influenced Middle Europe anchored by Berlin, Prague, and Vienna.

What time is it in Europe? A time zone map produced by German officials in 1893 implicitly argues for grouping together  Scandinavia, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy as part of a Central European time zone. Today, in contrast, "Central European Time" includes spaces from the former Russian Empire to Iberia.
What time is it in Europe? A time zone map produced by German officials in 1893 implicitly argues for grouping together Scandinavia, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy as part of a Central European time zone. Today, in contrast, “Central European Time” includes spaces from the former Russian Empire to Iberia.

Yet as Ogle shows, the advance of a system of uniform, hour-wide mean times and the dissemination of accurate times in accordance with time zones was an arduous, protracted process that took much longer to accomplish than hitherto assumed. The conferences and scientists who had pioneered the use of time zones in 1884 were quickly forgotten and never really affected administrators and legislators in their efforts to implement uniform, country-wide mean times. One reason for the slow spread of uniform mean time was the difficulty of imagining time as abstract and severed from natural and seemingly immovable rhythms of day and night or physiotemporal rhythms of sleep, wake, and nourishment. Europeans involved with drafting summer time legislation and mean times alike struggled as late as the 1920s to picture time as an abstract and moveable grid. Another reason was that colonial administrations were often too thinly spread to attempt a task as challenging as the implementation of territory-wide times. As a result, prior to the 1930s and even 1940s, there was no worldwide system of uniform mean times.

In those instances where a colonial state did move to unify time, Ogle shows how subaltern denizens were forced to think of time more abstractly than the men who ruled them. In the British Indian entrepôt of Bombay, for example, throughout the latter decades of the 19th century authorities sought to impose Madras time to Bombay (the southern Indian city had been used as a reference chrono-point for Indian telegraph services since the 1860s). But locals both Indian and British rejected Madras time as foreign and artificial. Bombay, after all, was the primus inter pares of Indian cities: why take on a lesser city’s authority for something as essential as time? Even as some government offices adopted Madras time, other official institutions remained on Bombay time, creating a wild chronotopology wherein certain people followed one time as authoritative and others, the other.

Two decades later, in the middle of the first decade of the new century, British colonial authorities tried to reform Indian time again. In 1903, the government in India agreed to adopt a time five and a half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, originally for use only by telegraph stations and railway stations, but also available for local application by British authorities if they wished. When the matter was brought up for debate by the Bombay Municipal Corporation, Indian Standard Time aroused a predictable wave of anti-colonial outrage. The leading Bombay politician and intellectual Pherozeshah Mehta decried the measure: “It is not fair and proper that the population of this City should be driven like a flock of dumb cattle because the Chamber of Commerce and the Port Trust adopted Standard time . . . a measure adopted by Government without consulting the feelings and sentiments of the people and without giving them an opportunity of expressing their opinion.”

The measure was defeated, but this time opposition to standardization was linked to opposition to British colonialism itself. Time unification had the ironic effect both of creating an Indian “national space” that framed anti-colonial activity while itself being an object that nationalists could attack as alien. Global attempts at timekeeping were reframed in “specific local constellations that took on national flavors.” If the German railmasters had failed to see the abstraction behind time management, Indian nationalists, less obsessed with “real time,” could exploit this global project to frame their own abstract ideological projects. As Ogle explains, “While many other instances of adopting universal standards occurred fairly unceremoniously and without a national rebranding of uniform time, these examples nevertheless speak to the pliability and adaptability of universalizing concepts as well as to the importance of national frames of reference even in an age that was characterized by increasingly transnational cross-border exchanges. Globalization certainly consisted of interactions between the global and the local, but these contacts could bring national differences to the fore.”

The stakes of time standardization took on different forms in the Ottoman Levant. (Here, Ogle’s hard-earned Arabic language skills come into play.) While the Levantine city of Beirut was part of the Ottoman Empire, intellectuals in the port city felt under siege at once by a modernizing Ottoman state and the influx of European merchants and traders whose societies had, to one extent or another, supplied the Ottoman Tanzimat program with models for reform. Out of this cultural crisis emerged what was later called the Nahda (“Renaissance”) movement, an attempt for Arabs in the Ottoman Empire to improve themselves in an effort to meet the double challenge of Istanbul and the West.

Time was one arena where these tensions played out. Given Beirut’s diverse religious and ethnic milieu–Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Christians plus (mostly) Sunni Muslims and Druze, and a small Jewish community–Beirut was a city saturated in time. Muslims began the day at sundown; “Frankish” Europeans at midnight. Different calendars added to the confusion. But in contrast to India, Beirut was not a colony (at least not of a European empire), nor was it subject to centralizing efforts at time reform. Members of the intelligentsia and merchant elite, however, devoted gallons of ink to the matter of time, specifically with reference to the ideas of “progress” and “backwardness.” Nahda figures soon turned to the pages to exhort readers to stop “wasting time,” while watch merchants hawked their goods in the pages of the Arabic-language press. Samuel Smiles’ pamphlet Self-Help was translated into Arabic in 1880, and Arab authors in Beirut took to the message of the book with great energy, seeking “to radically change people’s moral economy of time.” If the denizens of the Bilad al-Sham had fallen behind Europeans, Turks, or Armenians, then the common practice of “killing time” (qatl al-waqt) was one likely reason for the decline.

The Ottoman-era clock tower in Beirut, home to multiple different "time communities."
The Ottoman-era clock tower in Beirut, home to multiple different “time communities.”

The example of Arab reformers discussing time in the Levant moreover highlights the simultaneity of a globalizing world. Ideas certainly moved from one part of the world to another, albeit not without being transformed in the process. A global history perspective on time reform brings out that in several other instances, similar ideas were articulated simultaneously in different parts of the world without direct transmission–as a response to overarching political, economic, and social transformations but formulated in and on distinctly local terms. While Arab intellectuals exhorted their contemporaries to stop killing time for the purpose of self-strengthening, William Willet, a British reformer, in 1907 published a pamphlet with the title “The Waste of Daylight,” which would launch the daylight saving movement in Europe and the United States. And while Europeans and Americans launched an effort to unify calendars by adopting a globally uniform world calendar, Muslim learned men discussed the practice of determining the Islamic lunar month and asked how universal Islamic time could be, given that Muslims lived all over the world.

In light of Ogle’s research into European time practices, the efforts of Levantine figures to convert their readers make for an ironic and entertaining picture. Europeans, as the story of the German railway stations shows, were hardly as disciplined as the picture that Beirut intellectuals ascribed to their “Frankish” objects of emulation. All the same, the European-led effort to impose universal time had the effect of creating an “objective” frame of reference without which the concept of “wasting time” had no meaning. In cosmopolitan Beirut, after all, one Orthodox Christian’s tardiness was a Muslim’s haste; lateness and being “on time” didn’t mean anything if all could not agree to universal standards. In contrast to the colonial setting of British India, moreover, universal time was met not by anti-colonial nationalism and mobilization but a lively debate on how Arabs could co-opt the most useful features of “Europeanization” to aid an Arab Renaissance. Explains Ogle: “In the view of Bombay’s middle classes, British time was the illegitimate time of the colonizer, which was of no utility to those who truly represented the Indian ‘nation.’ Beirut writers, on the other hand, saw a potential weapon in efficient time management that, if embraced collectively as a people, could be turned against the threat of colonialism.”

Not content to rest upon her laurels, however, Ogle has begun work on a second book project tentatively entitled Archipelago Capitalism. The project examines the emergence of an economic and legal order in the postwar decades that would eventually become foundational for today’s global economy as it emerged from the 1970s and 1980s. The period between the 1940s and 1970s is often viewed as one in which the nation-state assumed its greatest importance yet. European reconstruction, the welfare state, decolonization and the end of empires, planned economies, and development and ‘modernization’ efforts in the Third World were all different forms of economic, political, and social state-building and nation-making. Even the UN and the Bretton Woods system, while ostensibly international, were predicated on nation-states as their building blocks. Archipelago Capitalism seeks to counter this narrative for the postwar era by focusing on the simultaneous emergence of a de-territorialized, non-national, and privatized order. Tax havens and offshore financial centers primarily in the Caribbean; Free Trade or Special Economic Zones in Asia, Latin America, and later, the Middle East, and Africa; the so-called “Eurodollar” market in the City of London; and the activities of multinational corporations that connected these sites, formed an extraterritorial and unregulated economic and legal regime of islands of unregulated capitalism.

These institutions are so much a part of the world today that it can be hard to imagine global capitalism without them. This spring, the French economist Gabriel Zucman used newly-available banking data on foreigners’ bank accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg to provide credible data on tax evasion, estimating that some 7 percent of global wealth is stashed in offshore tax havens. (That partly explains why economists’ records of international balance sheets persistently show net deficits, as if the world is in debt to itself.) Likewise, tax specialists like the German Prince Rubert von Löwenstein ran merchant banks that helped wealthy clients like the Rolling Stones funneled their money into offshore institutions that, in the case of the Stones, resulted in effective tax rates at 1.6%. (Not bad, given that the marginal tax rate in the United Kingdom is 60%.)

But, as Ogle explains, this “archipelago capitalism” has a history. If Contesting Time takes place in an age of free flows of capital, Archipelago Capitalism shows how, “in different ways, the postwar expansion of capitalism and industry throughout the world soon ran up against the post-1945 order. The volume of world trade between states increased sharply, but the mobility of capital had been restricted by the architects of Bretton Woods. As a consequence, bankers, businessmen, and the politicians beholden to them found other methods and sites to invest capital.” Yet this new project faced road bumps. Ogle explains: “At the same time, decolonization or nationalist assertion against outside interference led to a surge of economic development and industrialization under the banner of ‘modernization” and spelled perhaps the greatest expansion of capitalism and markets yet. In the shadow of these developments, former colonies and states now freed from informal foreign control became sites for carrying out limited, laboratory-like experiments in unregulated capitalism. When the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates came undone in the economic and political turmoil of the early 1970s, a landscape of unregulated financial markets, tax havens and offshore finance, and economic zones was already in place.”

The new institutional infrastructure prompted innovations in the circuits of capital. Political party platforms had to be reinvented to accommodate the needs of an ever more financialized economy. So, too, did the territory of empire. While imperial crown jewels were granted independence, others, like Bermuda, the Cayman and Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, and Singapore, became nodes in a global web of capital. Ogle tracks the story of how these élite actors responded to the double challenge posed by decolonization and the post-war consensus, with an emphasis on the architecture of capitalism they created in and outside Europe. Engaging with scholars of capitalism like Alasdair Roberts (whose Logic of Discipline was Ogle’s favorite recently-read book when we met with her) and Rawi Abdelal, Archipelago Capitalism promises to spark new conversations among historians of modern Europe, global history, and the history of political economy.

Far from telling a story of smoke-filled rooms, champagne-drinking and-cavier eating bankers, and their conniving attorneys, Ogle aims to explore the push-and-pull factors between national governments and the wealthy and corporate actors who made their home (for tax purposes if nothing else) on national soil. The story of who supplies what, and who demands what, in this story is, after all, murky. Mayors like Michael Bloomberg or Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) would argue that the presence of so many financial services firms in Manhattan and the City of London generates the taxation necessary for those cities to run the social services, schools, and parks that they do. The hyper-gentrification of Manhattan may grate on those who wistfully recall the days of “Crooklyn” and Escape From New York, but, so friends of the financial services industry would argue, great cities thrive by granting the Big Finance the insular soil (whether on Manhattan or in the City) it needs to base the employees who man the invisible archipelago beyond.

A similar dynamic presents itself in the case of corporate taxation and dividends. This summer, President Obama spoke out against the recent trend among US corporations to seek so-called “inversions,” moves to re-incorporate abroad for the purpose of avoiding American corporate taxes after Pfizer and Walgreens had announced to pursue such strategies. American readers, now blissfully between Presidential election cycles, may by now have forgotten the predictable refrains of candidates noting that the United States has one of the highest effective corporate tax rates in the world–35% at the marginal rate, although the average effective tax rate has hovered around 12% in recent years. If the United States wants to generate more jobs, they insist, it should lower its tax rates to those comparable of, say, Ireland, which has a low 12.5% tax rate. (Corporate leaders looking for better could try Chile or the UAE, which has a 0% corporate tax rate.)

Yet in a world where corporations claim the rights of the citizen, it’s not entirely obvious why corporate income should be taxed much lower than individual income. The pull factor imposed by countries, and trading blocs, suggests Ogle’s work, are part of the answer. It’s characteristic that in the course of negotiations over the new EU-USA Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, discussions over a minimum corporate tax were off the table. One can debate whether the putative gains in household income that more streamlined trade would bring (about $50 a year) would offset the lack of transparency.

What’s clear in any case, however, is that without an understanding of the history of deterritorialized capital, we’re less likely to be able to debate it today and in the future. As the frantic reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century showed this past spring, taxation, both corporate and individual, is a topic of growing interest not least because of its impact on inequality Here again is an example of where a global approach makes a significant difference to how historians can make the past legible to present-day audiences.

That said, as Ogle reflects, today’s job market can be tough for aspiring global historians. Teaching, she notes, is often determined by the needs of the curriculum at universities; practically, this means that the demand for modern Europeanists, national history, and other traditional fields still outpaces that for true globalists or internationalists. Ogle’s position, for example, is nominally for European transnational history, which means that she teaches primarily as a historian of modern Europe, albeit with a strong emphasis on Europe’s relations with other parts of the world. Still, because students’ most familiar reference points are, for better or for worse, often American or European, embracing a more truly global curriculum can be difficult. One would like to use the Ottomans and the Safavids for courses on comparative empire, but it’s often easier–and more pedagogically successful–to use the British and the Russians.

At the same time, as Ogle notes, what may seem like limitations are also grounds for scholars to keep working hard. It may be fashionable today to criticize global history for not presenting a novel methodology clearly enough, but the truth is that the members of a new generation of scholars–with Ogle among them–have barely started publishing their work as monographs yet. As new works appear, among them Sven Beckert’s book on the global history of cotton due out later this year and Ogle’s Contesting Time, one hopes that it will become more common for history departments and universities writ large to offer courses in global history. It’s up to the current generation of scholars to write the works that win praise and interest not only from our colleagues, but a new generation of students, all in a way that might re-orient history departments away from national history framings and towards a more ecumenical global re-orientation. If Ogle’s and other scholars’ work is any indication, the prospects for the field’s future seem bright indeed.

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